Infrastructure Week focuses on decaying roads, bridges—but transportation needs a green makeover

  • Published on May 23rd, 2016

By Meteor Blades

“This is the 21st century, but our transportation systems are stuck in the 20th. One of four bridges in the U.S. is structurally deficient or obsolete, more than half the miles we drive on federal highways are on roads HIgh speed rail infrastructure of the future/ iimage by banglafaridin less than good condition and our transit systems are stretched beyond capacity. This is a recipe for falling behind, not competing in the global economy. We can put men and women back to work building America, get our economy on track and leave behind real assets for taxpayers and future generations.” —Terry O’Sullivan, General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

You might get another cup of coffee to keep your eyes open. Because we’re going to talk about a word that tends to make a lot of people’s eyes glaze over: Infrastructure. Yet no other word quite conveys the broadness of meaning one gets out of infrastructure. And it’s essential.

Today is the final day of eight days devoted to it. They actually call it Infrastructure Week. The driving force behind it is the American Society of Civil Engineers. You may know them as the folks who put out a scary national infrastructure report card every four years. We don’t need that, however, to see what’s been happening.

America’s infrastructure suffers from decades of reckless neglect, what bureaucrats and policymakers conceal behind the euphemism of “deferred maintenance.” Decrepit describes the consequences. Myopic describes the attitude. This affects many realms—our public schools, our public health system, our electrical transmission grid and, despite how deeply we Americans treasure personal mobility, our transportation system.

This crumbling of infrastructure has been met over the years with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Even though all the infrastructure in the aforementioned areas is crucial to a thriving existence in the modern age, it has been treated as if it doesn’t really matter, insubstantially patched up or simply left to rot. That’s been as much the case with transportation as elsewhere.
But as Angie Schmitt at StreetsBlog USA writes, in the past six years we’ve seen a reduction by 17 percent in the total miles of pavement rated mediocre or poor, and a 14 percent decrease in the percentage of bridges considered structurally deficient.

Here’s Schmitt:

Despite the improving condition of roads and bridges, ASCE still says we’re headed for trouble due to “a failure to significantly invest in capacity growth.” In other words, highways are getting clogged by car traffic. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about infrastructure spending in the past 60 years, it’s that road widenings are a terrible use of money.

The cumulative effect: Road lobbyists are duping reporters and regular people into pestering Congress for road expansion funds.

To be sure, some people are taking the opportunity to ask the infrastructure policy questions we should be worrying about in the 21st Century. Are we making efficient use of the infrastructure funds we have? How can our infrastructure investments address pressing challenges like climate change or the housing crunch in major American cities?

But ASCE and other players with huge marketing budgets and a media megaphone are lagging behind, turning Infrastructure Week into a plea to make highways great again.

As she suggests, our transportation infrastructure has issues that are as much about shaky old ideas as they are about shaky old bridges. In spite of the obvious purpose of transportation—connecting human beings, goods, and services—we have allowed inefficiency, gridlock, lethal pollution, and fiscal unsustainability to rule the day.

According to one study by the Texas Transportation Institute, the average commuter was delayed a total of 42 hours in traffic in 2014, up from 34 hours in 2009. You can see your area’s statistics on this here. Inflation-adjusted congestion costs rose from $24 billion in 1982 to $160 billion in 2014. Wasted fuel from congestion hit 3.9 billion gallons—equal to 130 days of flow in the Alaska Pipeline.

About half of Americans have no alternative to travel by automobile and no reasonable access to public transit. Like our roads and bridges, that public transit has been subjected to decades of deferred maintenance. It would take around $100 billion just to bring what we’ve still got into good working order.

Fixes matter. Decaying bridges can’t be ignored. But too much of our attention in transportation is devoted to repairing, and not enough to rethinking. Important improvements are being made. For example, light rail, a system prevalent in many cities in the days before the internal combustion engine reshaped our lives, is making a comeback a few urban miles at a time. But this is a small effort, piecemeal and underfunded. Vehicle drive-trains are being revamped, but ever so slowly.

Meanwhile, our major modes of transportation poison us, burn two-thirds of the oil we drill at home and import from abroad, make us less secure because of the geopolitics involved in maintaining access to much of that oil, gobble up a scarce resource essential for making other products, extract large hunks of household income, and contribute a third of the CO2 we’re loading into the atmosphere.

Community bikes in Manhattan

Rethinking transportation means rethinking zoning and other aspects of how we build our cities and develop the land in between. It demands a hard look at subsidies that promote particular modes of transportation to the exclusion of others, and broadening the definition of what a subsidy is.

Rethinking transportation requires rethinking the currently inadequate public revenue streams that pay for most of its infrastructure. And, obviously, it means extricating ourselves from dependence on fossil fuel—not just the imported stuff, but what we take out of the ground within our own borders and from beneath the continental shelves.

The good news is that rethinking and subsequently enacting policies for remaking our transportation system can spur us to build more bike- and pedestrian-friendly cities, make our vehicles efficient, cut pollution, lower CO2 emissions, reduce the size of our military budget, boost the use of alternative fuels—in particular, renewably generated electricity, decrease congestion, and help create a new manufacturing base, which, in turn, will supply millions of high-quality jobs. The bad news is that there is stubborn opposition, local and national, to all of this.

Getting people into more efficient cars is only one piece of a good transportation policy. Getting them out of cars is just as important. That requires providing ample access to other convenient modes of getting around. And that requires a long-term reshaping of our cities to make cars less necessary. This will be expensive and politically tough, both at the national and local levels.

In October 2010, the Apollo Alliance, now merged with the Blue-Green Alliance of several environmental groups and labor unions put together Make It in America: The Apollo Clean Transportation Manufacturing Action Plan. Some great ideas in that document:

…TMAP calls for a comprehensive strategy to boost domestic transit and freight manufacturing that starts with increasing current federal investment to $30 billion per year for public transit and $10 billion per year for intercity and high-speed rail. Bringing transit and rail investments up to these levels will create 3.7 million jobs, double ridership over the next two decades, and build out a comprehensive intercity and high-speed rail system. In addition, these investments will generate $60 billion in net annual gross domestic product, nearly $45 billion in additional worker income, and $14 billion in annual tax revenue, spurring additional growth throughout the economy.

Currently, the United States lags in meeting public transportation needs and falls far behind its European and Asian counterparts in modernizing public transportation systems. In this context, federal policymakers will consider future investments to modernize public transit infrastructure. If these investments are done correctly, they will create new opportunity for American manufacturers.

More than 600,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector alone would be created by increasing annual federal public transit domestic advanced transportation manufacturing industry. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act investments in public transit put more than 12,000 new buses, rail cars, and paratransit vans into service, supporting over 175 jobs at the Gillig bus manufacturing facility alone.

That’s a lot of jobs. And it’s part of a good approach for rejuvenating U.S. manufacturing. Expanding rail and bus lines would provide more business for those growing domestic companies. More sales, more jobs.

Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have proposed significant increases in infrastructure spending. Sanders originally called for $1 trillion extra over 10 years to be spent on it, later making that over five years. Truth be told, we all know Congress as currently composed would never go for that. The majority there is all about deferred maintenance on just about everything except the military.

All told when the costs—including veteran-care costs—are added in, the military budget is about $1 trillion dollars per year. And that’s the least we should be spending for repairing and innovating new infrastructure.

Here are a few policy options for how to raise infrastructure money and what to spend it on:

No. 1: Revisit former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 initiative. A voter-passed measure in Los Angeles will ultimately provide $18 billion for public transit projects, much of it for an extension of the city’s subway and light-rail lines. But that revenue comes in over 30 years, which means additional decades of congestion and pollution that the projects are designed to relieve. Villaraigosa wanted to build the funded projects in 10 years by getting the federal government to lend the transit authority the money up front (to be repaid as the local tax revenue comes in). The idea didn’t pass muster in Congress. But it’s a good one.

No. 2: Finally get around to establishing a national infrastructure bank to fund 30/10 initiatives in cities and states willing to provide the long-term revenue to repay the loans. Provide federal financial assistance to state infrastructure banks on the same model.


No. 3: Invest $2 trillion between now and 2030 to enhance rail transportation, adding electrified intercity high-speed rail lines for both passengers and freight. Too expensive? During World War II, though more deeply in debt as a proportion of its gross domestic product than ever before, the United States, (having no choice) went deeper into debt and retooled and expanded its manufacturing base to produce the equipment that helped it win the war and lay the foundation for two generations of prosperity. We need to behave as if the current situation equals the emergency faced in 1941. Because it does. Transportation’s use of fossil fuel is one of the largest contributors to climate change. And if we intend to take climate change seriously, rail transportation needs a makeover. Rail transportation is already extremely efficient, but taking it off diesel, speeding it up, and building new lines that compete with air travel will make it even more so.

Economist Bruce McF(arling) has until recently been a tireless promoter of a project that would consume a good portion of that money: the Steel Interstate. It deserves to be capitalized. You can read about it at the website of the North American Steel Interstate Coalition, founded by the Virginia-based Rail Solution. The short version: Steel Interstates would be publicly owned, electrified upgrades to the Department of Defense’s Strategic Rail Corridor NETwork, or STRACNET. Freight trains would travel on both existing and new track up to 100 mph. This would “provide better loading dock to loading dock transit time than a direct long haul truck.” Carrying cargo by electric rail is 90 percent more energy efficient than by diesel trucks, providing another reduction in the amount of oil we use and the pollution we cause. From the NASIC:

According to transportation researcher, Alan Drake, the U.S. can easily offset the required “new” electricity demand of an electrified national rail system, “Transferring inter-city freight from truck to electrified double stack container rail replaces roughly 20 BTUs of refined diesel with 1 BTU of electricity … . This 20 to 1 replacement ratio, diesel “traded” for renewable electricity (or conservation), has significant economic, energy, environmental, public health & safety and national security benefits. Savings on the order of two million barrels per day or about 11% of current US oil consumption are possible.

Electrification of these lines could be from any sources, but obviously they should be green. Using ultra-high voltage direct current transmission lines from remotely located solar and wind power installations would solve the electricity “leakage” problem. Unlike existing transmission lines, HVDCs lose only about 5 percent of their electricity for every 1,000 miles. Building the Steel Interstate should be viewed not as a cost, but a long-term investment, with financing eventually paid off through user fees.

No. 4: Implement federal mileage-based user fees. The social costs of highway use differ based on the type of vehicle. Passenger vehicles cause more congestion; trucks cause more pavement damage. If motorists were required to pay for all the costs their driving incurred, they would pay a lot more than they do now. In other words, they are being subsidized. Perhaps policymakers would want to continue some level of subsidy. But well-designed MBUFs would go far to increasing highway efficiency by encouraging motorists to consolidate trips and discouraging trips in which costs of driving exceeded benefits.

No. 5: Encourage densely populated cities to impose “congestion fees.” London was the first city (in 2003) to enact a congestion fee of £10 for motorists who choose to drive their cars into heavily trafficked downtown areas that are supplied with adequate public transportation.

No. 6: Encourage cities by means of federal incentives to reduce the amount of parking required when new buildings are designed, and to spur the use of solar panels to generate electricity and shade the parking lots that are built. Today, whether for high rises or shopping malls, how much parking will be provided is frequently a major issue of contention. This often produces acres of asphalt that adds to urban heat in the summer months. Being shaded by the panels and the structure that holds aloft is a win for everybody, including drivers who now return to a car whose insides are hotter than the Sahara.

No. 7: Provide federal matching dollars to deliver high-quality municipal and rural broad-band nationwide. One means of cutting down transportation congestion and fossil-fuel addiction that helps it thrive is telecommuting. Although this has yet to become quite the juggernaut that was once predicted for it, an increasingly large cohort of the population does “work from home,” and more would no doubt do so if they were encouraged in various ways.

One way to encourage them is to encourage the companies that hire them to make telecommuting more employee friendly. Another is to spread cheap high-speed wi-fi into areas that don’t have them. Rural areas, small towns and American Indian reservations would all be candidates, but urban areas shouldn’t be left out. The Federal Communications Commission’s welcome decision to pre-empt state government bans on municipal broadband expansions is a foot in the door for all cities to have some operations. But the idea of direct government competition doesn’t sit well with existing providers.

Other policies should be developed as well. For instance, bike lanes should be an integral part of all new street construction. There’s an obstacle, however. Such policies are the sole province, or almost so, of state and local authorities.

Zoning is an important example. It has a powerful impact on transportation, but it’s always been for counties and municipalities to determine what gets built where. Growth management policies that promote development in areas with high-quality transit service not only make sense, they are also crucial for 21st century transportation. But these are typically areas in which the federal government has had limited influence since the end of “urban renewal” schemes of the 1950s and ’60s. The outcome of those schemes was often disastrous, particularly for poor and minority communities.

We don’t want to repeat that.

Some changes do not come from new policies but changes in attitude. For example, much of what we buy, particularly when it comes to food, comes from hundreds or more miles away. Buying local produce saves oil in the same way that riding a bike or walking to the grocery store does. Eating what comes from local harvests, however, means reducing sprawl that eats up farmland. Achieving that is a good deal harder to make happen than leaving the car keys on the table instead of driving two or three times a week. And yet far too few Americans are willing to ditch the car and walk, ride a bike, or take public transit. Persuading them to do so, and to support policies that encourage other people to do so will be, like so many other tasks progressives face, not easy in the face of habit and propaganda.

Especially these days, we’re told “No can do!” when even the mildest new policy proposal is suggested. Can’t-do-it, can’t-get-enough-votes, got-to-be-practical, we’re told.

So why propose policy changes that have no chance of being adopted until a more willing and wise Congress is in office? Because innovative ideas, in transportation and other arenas, shouldn’t wait to be presented until we have the power to implement them. Promoting these ideas and others should be a big part of the process that will help us gain the political clout to make them happen.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos. Image by Banglafarid)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.